By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Gannett falsely accuses the Journal of smear in report on ad-tech screw-up

They say Indianapolis is lovely in the summer. Photo (cc) 2009 by Willy Feng.

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that a glitch in Gannett’s online advertising software had resulted in ads appearing in the wrong places. For instance, to cite an actual example, an ad that was intended for USA Today’s national online audience might instead appear on the website of the Indianapolis Star.

So how did Gannett respond? With a defensive press release that falsely claimed the Journal story “implies Gannett intentionally shared inaccurate information to advertisers over a period of nine months.”

No, it didn’t. You can read the full Journal story, by Patience Haggin, for yourself, but this seems relevant: “Gannett said in a statement that it provided the wrong information and that it regrets the error, which it said was unintentional.” There is not one sentence in Haggin’s article contradicting Gannett’s claim that the error was inadvertent. Of course, the mistake might have been related to the fact that Gannett’s workforce is notoriously overworked and underpaid, but the Journal article didn’t say that, either.

What the story does confirm is that no one knows what is going on in the murky world of programmatic advertising, where digital ad space is sold through automated auctions by Google and, in this case, Gannett. It’s not at all like buying a two-column, six-inch ad on page seven in your local print newspaper. As Braedon Vickers, the ad-industry researcher who discovered the error, told the Journal, “Programmatic advertising relies on a lot of data being self-reported by those selling the ads. That this issue went undetected for so long suggests that the processes in place to verify this information are not sufficient.”

Writing in the trade journal Editor & Publisher, Gretchen A. Peck observed that Gannett’s “value proposition and trust” were undermined by the error. But she also quoted Krzysztof Franaszek, the founder of Adalytics Research, who said it appeared exceedingly unlikely that Gannett’s deceptive practices were intentional:

I think it’s likely a simple ad ops error. We tried to analyze this phenomenon from a number of different angles to determine if there was some kind of material benefit to Gannett of doing this, and after an exhaustive enumeration of possibilities, we found no rational explanation of how this would benefit Gannett.

Among the brands affected by the screw-up, according to Vicker, were Nike, Ford, State Farm, Starbucks and Marriott. Gannett’s statement said the error involved less than $10 million in advertising.

Gannett is the country’s largest newspaper chain, owning 100 or so daily newspapers and many hundreds of other media properties in 46 states. The company controls a good share of the local news outlets in Greater Boston and environs — including a number of weekly papers that have gone digital-only in the past year, and which recently dumped community coverage from most of its non-daily titles.

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  1. Steve Ross

    Your take on this makes sense. I cannot help thinking that this scandal or barely-scandalous discovery will result in more distress for newspapers in the months ahead. It has happened before.

    And, there is an oddity in the business right now. Every publication I have ever worked for has been hammered by advertisers if an ad did not pull in as many customers as expected. These days, ad buys are so scattered and typical ads so cheap to run (per exposure to a potential customer) that buyers (advertisers) need software and even outside services to track responses. Their software or their ad agencies’ software talks to the media’s software. What could possibly go wrong?

    Local advertisers can live and die by their small ad budgets, and are more careful. But they are losing the local publications (newspapers, but also flyers, coupon books, local social media). News deserts thus are also ad deserts.

    All that said, as newspaper companies by 2001 tried to maintain their huge gross margins in the face from (gasp!) digital competition, they often simply falsified their circulation numbers. Newsday was probably the biggest single offender in gross numbers (falsified 8% of its subscribers, on a big base). Occasional scandals have popped up since. So good reporters who follow this business (and there are many) must already be sharpening their knives. Pencils. Keyboards or at least the edges of their boomerang laptops.

  2. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to “misrepresent” is done “… usually with an intent to deceive or be unfair … .” The implication of “intent” may be what Gannett is PO’d about.

    mis·​rep·​re·​sent | \ (ˌ)mis-ˌre-pri-ˈzent \
    misrepresented; misrepresenting; misrepresents
    Definition of misrepresent
    transitive verb

    1: to give a false or misleading representation of usually with an intent to deceive or be unfair
    misrepresented the facts
    2: to serve badly or improperly as a representative of

  3. PS: The subhead of the Wall Street Journal’s article’s states, “Publisher misrepresented where billions of ads were placed, researchers say, and Gannett corrected the issue in recent days.”

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